The Definition of a Wildlife Veterinarian: History, Semantics, Philosophies, and Cultures of the American Association of Wildlife Veterinarians (AAWV) and the American Association of Zoo Veterinarians (AAZV)
American Association of Zoo Veterinarians Conference 2006
R. Scott Larsen1, DVM, MS, DACZM; Jonathan Sleeman2, MA, VetMB, DACZM, MRCVS; Kirsten Gilardi1, DVM, DACZM; Michele Miller3, DVM, PhD
1Wildlife Health Center, School of Veterinary Medicine, University of California, Davis, CA, USA; 2Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, Commonwealth of Virginia, Richmond, VA, USA; 3Disney’s Animal Programs, Lake Buena Vista, FL, USA


What is a “wildlife veterinarian”? This would seem to be a very simple question to answer: a wildlife veterinarian is a veterinarian who works with wildlife, but given the diversity of professional interests and niches found at any meeting of the American Association of Wildlife Veterinarians (AAWV) or the American Association of Zoo Veterinarians (AAZV), it becomes clear that there is not necessarily a straightforward answer.

There are many professional organizations and groups in veterinary medicine. Most of these are clearly defined by their geography, their species of interest, or the body system in which they specialize. However, the AAWV and the AAZV are both organizations dedicated to the health of wildlife and, as such, have common goals and interests. Historically, “wildlife veterinarians” have been focused on disease issues of free-ranging populations, while “zoo veterinarians” have been concerned with clinical medicine in captive individuals. While there may be some truth to this statement, as with any generalization, it is also loaded with inaccuracy. It is neither sufficient nor accurate to state that AAWV members are “wildlife veterinarians” and AAZV members are “zoo veterinarians.” So, what is it that sets the members of these two organizations apart?

The AAWV was established in 1979 as an organization of veterinarians interested in all aspects of wildlife health.2 One of its main objectives is to enhance the contribution of veterinary medicine to the welfare of the wildlife resource by promoting a philosophy of animal management, preventive medicine, and disease recognition in free-ranging species.1 The AAWV works to educate veterinary students, veterinarians, government agencies, and wildlife interest groups on matters of wildlife and ecosystem health, with an emphasis on wildlife management, preventive medicine, and the inter-relationship between humans, domestic animals, wildlife, and the environment in disease.1 It also serves as an advocate to promote the use of veterinarians in wildlife resource management and research, and encourage cooperation between veterinarians and resource management professionals.1

The AAZV was established in 1960 as a professional organization for zoo practitioners.4 Since that time, it has expanded to become an international organization dedicated to applying the principles of comparative veterinary medicine to zoo and wildlife species. One of the organization’s major objectives is to advance programs for preventive medicine, husbandry, and scientific research for captive and free-ranging wild animals.3 Its constituents work in clinical zoo medical practice, diagnostic laboratories, reproductive and pathologic laboratories, pharmaceutical companies, governmental health agencies, and wildlife management agencies.5 The mission of AAZV is to improve the healthcare and promote the conservation of both captive and free-ranging wildlife species.5 Over the years, the AAZV has undergone major evolution, and in 2002 a strategic planning workshop was conducted to chart a path for the AAZV of the future.4 A dominant theme from this workshop was the increasing importance of conservation and field participation by AAZV members.

There are distinct differences in the membership roster of the two groups, with most AAZV members being based in zoos and aquaria and most AAWV members being based in government agencies and/or academic institutions. Traditionally, the members of AAWV are experienced in addressing disease issues in free-ranging populations. They are closely integrated with biologists and resource managers in determining how to address disease issues in wildlife. AAWV members work with disease issues in threatened and endangered species, but also in non-native pests and in game species that are routinely harvested. AAZV members traditionally work with disease issues on an individual or small population basis, with particular attention to free-ranging populations of threatened and endangered species. However, as AAZV members have become more active participants in the conservation of free-ranging populations, the lines between the two organizations have become more and more blurred.

Given their common goals and interests, AAWV and AAZV will continue to partner in issues of wildlife health. A recently signed memorandum of agreement solidifies the relationship through several means, including a joint “Committee on Wildlife Health and Conservation.”1 This committee is charged with promoting the shared goals of AAZV and AAWV regarding the health, welfare, and conservation of free-ranging wildlife and their ecosystems. Disease issues such as tuberculosis, West Nile virus, and avian influenza emphasize the current and pending need for individuals from both organizations to collaborate and cooperate. In a world that is rapidly shrinking, “wildlife veterinarians” will need to work together, whether they are based out of state agencies, zoological parks, universities, or private practices.


We acknowledge the many leaders and members of the American Association of Wildlife Veterinarians and American Association of Zoo Veterinarians who created, developed, and strengthened these organizations into what they are today.

Literature Cited

1.  American Association of Wildlife Veterinarians. Accessed 1 May 2006.

2.  American Association of Wildlife Veterinarians Newsletter. Fall 2005. Pp. 10.

3.  American Association of Zoo Veterinarians. AAZV Organization Information Center. Accessed 1 May 2006. (VIN editor: Link not accessible as of 1-21-21)

4.  American Association of Zoo Veterinarians. Strategic Planning Future Search Workshop. “Visioning the AAZV of the Future.” May 30–June 2, 2002. White Oak Plantation, Yulee, Florida. Pp. 76.

5.  American Association of Zoo Veterinarians. Who We Are…and What We Do. Accessed 1 May 2006. (VIN editor: Link not accessible as of 1-21-21)


Speaker Information
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R. Scott Larsen, DVM, MS, DACZM
Wildlife Health Center
School of Veterinary Medicine
University of California
Davis, CA, USA

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